Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Becoming a physician with a big heart

Hanan Abukmail | 20-10-2020

stethoscope on Palestine flag

Throughout my childhood, I held a dream of being a white angel, like the doctors I saw on TV. I was fascinated with the white coat and stethoscope. The one and only role I loved to play with my peers was doctor. I used doctor’s tools to check their hearts, ears, and throat, and I used dolls to give shots with a needle, like a doctor.

I’m the oldest child in my family, so as I finished high school everyone eagerly awaited the results of my tawjihi (General Secondary Education Certificate Examination) that would determine the course of study I could pursue at university.

But our anticipation and hopes were interrupted by the 2014 Israeli attack on the Gaza strip. Almost every family lost someone or something to mourn. Some lost a family member, others lost a home, a part of their body, or even a dream! I was in my grandmother’s garden when a phone call came from our neighbors. “Your home has been destroyed!” Nothing can explain the way we felt. No words can express the shock. I still remember the sight of my parents and the way they looked at each other.

It was my father’s eyes that summarized the story: everything is gone. The place that held us close for so many years has disappeared. Even our memories will fade away. The next days, we went back to see the ruined heap. I guess it was a way of saying goodbye!

What came after, in the many days of bombing, was enough to kill the last breath of hope that stirred in my heart. Among the fear, sadness, death, and dusty gray winds, I could barely think of my schooling.

The day I received my excellent tawjihi results that would allow me to study medicine, I thought that our sorrow would be replaced with joy. But it was not. Nothing can replace a home! And I worried guiltily: how could I study medicine while my family was worrying about recovering from the devastation?

But how could I let an air strike bomb my own future? The war was ill-fated, but it caused me to realize that we could lose our lives at any moment, so we must keep moving forward as best we can. Strength filled my heart. I felt nothing could hurt me again.  


Moving forward through medical school

So my medical education started on a hopeful note. The smiles, happiness, and pride that I saw in my parents’ eyes the day they learned my tawjihi results motivated me to work hard, study more, and do my best. I traveled daily by bus and had long days with a full schedule of lectures and training. I also had many opportunities to talk with patients, each of them with a special health-related story.

During my six-year journey through medical school, I would frequently recall a quotation from Bernice Johnson Reagan: “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you. They’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” Each moment I faced challenges, I considered my two choices to give up or to stand strong and work even harder.

In my fourth year of medical school, I went to a beloved relative’s house after learning of her diagnosis with breast cancer. Seeing her at a loss for words, I took her hand. Tearfully, she squeezed my hand. In silence I tried to convey a message of support and love. And to myself, I passionately declared, I will be a physician with a big heart.

I had already learned about the vital role physicians play in the life of everyday people like my beloved relative, but this visit opened my eyes to the necessary role of medical research. That very same year, I was second author on the article, “Breast Cancer Awareness and Barriers to Early Presentation in Gaza Strip: A Cross-Sectional Study,” which was published in the Journal of Global Oncology, the journal of the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Fast forward to 2020, the year of my graduation ceremony. Along comes COVID -19, a real nightmare, like the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza but one that is overwhelming the whole world. COVID has made graduating truly surreal as I make a virtual goodbye to the long days of studying, sleepless nights, blood, and tears, without the transition to the real world that I had planned.

In the days to come, we all have to find ways to hope, to muster courage, and to act with empathy to help others going through troubles in this time. We all must use life’s challenges to help us find who we are.

Posted: October 21, 2020

Mentor: Jaylyn Olivo

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